With the Super Bowl LV days away, many NFL fans will still be sitting at home twiddling their thumbs in the run up to the annual championship game.

Matt Marcou, EA Sports’ Senior Director and Commissioner of Madden NFL, told Insider Sport how the video game developer is integrating the virtual world with real life settings and engaging a new audience.

This year, the first virtual Pro Bowl was played out on the popular Madden 21 video game after the traditional All-Star game was cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Instead, EA pitted the likes of Snoop Dogg against professional National League Football (NFL) players such as Deshaun Watson in a simulated setting.

Although the season closer will eventually return to the real world, the virtual Pro Bowl struck a chord with many NFL fans, opening up a gap in the market for future collaborations between the developer and the league’s franchises.

“We’re providing football fans with even more ways to enjoy the sports they love featuring their favorite teams and players,” Marcou reaffirmed.

“This past year has presented us with many different and sometimes unexpected opportunities to put a national spotlight on Madden NFL football and the passionate players who excel at its strategy and stick skills.”

On Friday evening, the culmination of the Madden NFL 21 Championship Series will air live on ESPN2, acting as a precursor to the Super Bowl LV.

“In addition to hosting the virtual Pro Bowl, which brought together celebrities and NFL players this past weekend, we’re gearing up for our Madden NFL 21 Club Championship finals on Friday, where the top Madden NFL players go head-to-head for their share of the largest-ever prize pool in Madden NFL Championship Series history.”

National broadcasters and networks in the US have taken an increased interest in esports during the pandemic and began to recognise the value of the virtual world. Companies such as EA were able to leverage new contracts and thus, the game received additional exposure.

“When live sports and entertainment were halted earlier this year, broadcasters turned to esports to fill those programming gaps and continue to engage viewers. More importantly, it offered a chance for them to get a taste of esports and what it has to offer.

“What was at first meant to be a quick fix for content-starved networks has since become a unique opportunity to reach a global audience of younger, digital-savvy cordcutters.”

EA is aiming to ‘reach an even broader audience’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, using gaming and esports to connect NFL enthusiasts with the sport they love.

He explained: “Traditional sports fans are aging up, and will continue to do so – we only see this dynamic deepening over time.

“Madden NFL has always been a source of connection for football fans and that has been reinforced in the current set of conditions in the US, where people are seeking connection within their home.

“There is really no singular type of football fan – each of them have varying interests and consume football in different ways. We see the synergies between esports and traditional sports as a very valuable cross section of the industry to help grow fan engagement across the board, whether that’s bridging the gap between a younger, digital generation of fans or providing more traditional football fans with even more content to consume.”

Despite the closure of the NBC Sports Network, which is set to shut down by the end of 2021, EA has agreements in place with a handful of different broadcast partners and Marcou insisted that it is not ‘limited’ to its platforms.

“EA works with a variety of networks and has had esports content air in more than 75 international territories and on an estimated 30 notable broadcast stations around the world, including BeIN, The CW, ESPN, FS1, NBC Sports, TBS, Sky Sports, Sport 1, Telemundo, NFL Network, Disney XD, and more,” he continued.

“Our strategy is to make competitive gaming accessible to everyone, and a significant part of that is achieved by providing content across a multitude of linear and digital platforms for fans to engage with and not limiting our distribution channels.”

Through ‘gaming, entertainment, and sports crossovers’, EA has engaged and retained sports and NFL fans and the blend is an effective one, according to the Madden NFL Commissioner.

“While we’re still in early in the exploration of how to effectively merge the synergies of these industries and their audiences, we’ve made this an ongoing focal point of our competitive gaming initiatives, and it’s been deployed with great success. We’ve been able to create can’t-miss pop-culture moments and have elevated esports relevance in the social mainstream.

“The future of sports will be a healthy mix of digital and physical,” he added. “Gaming is helping to create new and unique ways for current fans to stay connected and engage with their favourite teams and players as well as with each other year round.

“Since video games present a level playing field, it allows for unique experiences where athletes, celebrities, musicians, influencers, etc. can all come together to celebrate a common love of sports.”

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